Washington's Biggest Crime Problem: The Federal Government's Ever-Expanding Criminal Code Is an Affront to Justice and the Constitution

By Anderson, William L.; Jackson, Candice E. | Reason, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Washington's Biggest Crime Problem: The Federal Government's Ever-Expanding Criminal Code Is an Affront to Justice and the Constitution


Anderson, William L., Jackson, Candice E., Reason


MICHAEL PAUL MAHONEY was convicted of selling methamphetamine in 1980 and served 22 months in a Texas prison. Upon his release, he went straight, opening a pool hall in Jackson, Tennessee. After closing up each night, he would deposit the day's receipts at the bank, carrying a small .22-caliber pistol for protection.

In 1992, after the pistol was stolen, Mahoney bought a new one at a pawnshop, filling out the required paperwork. After the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms investigated the purchase, the U.S. Attorney's Office in western Tennessee charged him with violating a federal law that bars "career criminals" from owning a gun. (He qualified as a career criminal because he had sold methamphetamine to an undercover officer three times.) Although the judge at Mahoney's trial protested that it was pointless to pursue such a case against a now-law-abiding citizen, federal sentencing rules tied his hands. Mahoney, who was 39 when he was convicted in 1993, received a 15-year sentence. By contrast, people convicted under Tennessee's law prohibiting gun ownership by felons (which did not apply to Mahoney, since his drug conviction was more than 10 years old) can receive sentences of less than a year.

In 2000 Memphis business owner Logan Young, who had been a close friend of the legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, was accused of paying some $150,000 to two Memphis high school coaches in an attempt to steer a prize recruit to Alabama. The National Collegiate Athletic Association investigated the charges and placed Alabama's football team on probation for two years. Young arguably could have been charged with violating a Tennessee law that forbids bribes to "public servants," a crime that carries a penalty of three to six years in prison. But then prosecutors would have had to prove that he actually bribed the coaches, a charge he hotly denies.

Instead he was indicted last fall on three federal charges derived from the alleged bribery: conspiring with the coaches; aiding and abetting travel across state lines "with the intent to further unlawful activity"; and trying to conceal the alleged payments by withdrawing the money in amounts of less than $10,000, the threshold for a currency transaction report to the Internal Revenue Service. Each count carries a five-year prison term.

In 1996 Edward Hanousek Jr., a road master for a railroad company running between Alaska and Canada, was convicted of negligently discharging a harmful quantity of oil into the Skagway River, a U.S. waterway, in violation of the Clean Water Act. An independent contractor had accidentally ruptured a pipeline while attempting to clear rocks off the tracks. Hanousek was off duty and at home that day, nowhere near the accident site, and he had no knowledge of the pipeline rupture until after the fact. The government nevertheless prosecuted Hanousek, a federal jury convicted him, and he received a sentence of six months in prison, six months in a halfway house, six months of post-release supervision, and a $5,000 fine.

These are just three of the many cases that illustrate how federal criminal law has overstepped its proper bounds, prescribing draconian punishments for offenses that should be handled at the state level or that should not be considered crimes at all. During the last century, especially in the last three decades and in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Congress has made federal crimes out of an astonishing array of behavior, much of which is already prohibited by state law, could be better addressed with civil penalties, or is considered wrongful not because it violates anyone's rights but only because Congress says so.

When Congress creates a federal penalty for actions traditionally prosecuted at the state level, it violates the core constitutional principle of federalism, which prohibits Congress from legislating on local matters. Such laws also burden the federal court system, promote selective prosecutions, and stack the deck against defendants. …

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